The gym was loud and crowded and a bit chaotic. High school students of all shapes, sizes and skill levels took to the court to warm up and wave at those watching in the bleachers.
My oldest daughter was among the group on the floor as part of the Unified basketball league, a program that combines Special Olympics athletes with partners for competition against other high school teams.
As games got underway, the crowd’s enthusiasm overflowed. Cheers rose up as each basket went down. The pep band performed and players’ names were chanted, while parents and teachers yelled encouragement from the sidelines.
For a moment in time, all the labels and segregation so common in high school seemed to disappear. If you had the courage to simply show up, you were cheered on. The differences were still there, but the individuals came together as one team, sharing their enthusiasm for basketball and building new friendships along the way.
The entire scene was a beautiful picture of community. Because our daughter chose to participate in something out of her normal realm, our family had the opportunity to celebrate something truly spectacular.
It was a proud moment for this parent.
It seems as if my awareness of those with special needs has been deepening lately. One of my husband’s colleagues started a coffee program this year where students with disabilities learn life skills by making and delivering beverages to staff. Our other daughter recently attended an Out of the Shadows Theater production where the disabled are paired with actors to perform on stage. My sister helped establish a safe environment for children with special needs at our church.
There are organizations all around us bringing help and hope to those who may look and act different than the “normal” population. There are people actively striving to make this world a better place, not just for themselves, but for others. I want to be one of them.
I’ve often allowed my busy schedule or lack of knowledge be an excuse for not engaging with others different from me. But I know deep down it was more a lack of courage and confidence.
I’m guessing that fear prevents a lot of people from engaging with others. Fear of being uncomfortable, not knowing what to say or how to act. Fear of embarrassment. Fear of what others might think. Fear of our differences.
But fear is a thief that robs us of experiences and moments that stretch and mold our character. Being brave sometimes means facing down the fear and simply showing up.
The book of Esther presents both the risks and joy of choosing to unselfishly participate in something greater than ourselves. Through a chain of events, the Bible tells us that Esther is chosen to be queen by the ruler of the Persian Empire. A plot by one of the king’s advisers to execute Jews is ruined by Esther, who has kept her Jewish heritage a secret due to the threat on her own life.
But by following the advice of her cousin and shrewdly appealing to the king, the plans were thwarted. Esther’s bravery and boldness saved the Jews from annihilation. As a result, the surrounding Jewish communities went into party mode that is now observed during the festival of Purim: “It was a time of happiness and joy, gladness and honor… with feasting and celebrating” (Esther 8:16-17).
Celebration is not just about throwing a party. Celebration also means “to make known publicly; to praise widely or to present widespread and favorable public notice.” It can mean showing up to witness the stories of those who are different than us, and then sharing with others in an attempt to connect together people of all kinds in our community.
I’ve been in the crowd for hundreds of basketball games. But this Friday night was easily one of the most beautiful events I’ve witnessed because of the way the participants were celebrated.
During this month honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., it seems fitting to ponder how we can intentionally participate in the lives of those who may not look or think or act like us. What marginalized group can we help bring awareness to? In what ways can we support and cheer on those on the fringe of society?
Let’s not just hope for a different world; let’s do something to make it better.
Participate and celebrate. It’s what we’re all capable of doing, together.